Last summer, I had a job as a patient care technician at a local hospital. Not only was I getting clinical experience and working closely with patients, but I made a decent buck--great news for a college student.
One night, about 1 a.m., I had just finished a grueling, 12 1/2 hour shift. All I wanted was an ice-cold Mountain Dew. I went to a local grocery store, got my drink and went to the front to pay.
The only lane open was an Express Checkout, but it was anything but. Then I saw what was holding up the line: A Hispanic woman, about 30 years old, was paying for a lot of groceries—whole milk, white bread, apple juice--with a food stamp card. Or, she was trying to. The cashier was scanning the thing repeatedly, signing off and signing back on, her eyes pleading, "Why isn't this working??"
There were about four people behind me in line, and the frustration was building. As for the woman buying the food-- not a trace of embarrassment. She must have been used to it.
In my head I yelled, "I HAVE CASH! I CAN PAY, with REAL money! I just WORKED, that's right, WORKED, 12 and a half hours caring for people, and I have to wait for THIS woman?”
I’m Hispanic. I’m a nursing student. But I didn’t empathize with her at all.
My father came here illegally from Mexico in 1970. My mother, in 1987. Dad always talked about how hard he worked for everything he had. How he paid off his mortgage, bought a brand-new car and raised a wonderful family, all without ever taking a penny of other hard-working people’s tax dollars.
"There's people with college degrees that will never be able to do that," he would boast. To him, it's definitely not fair that people can get tax credits for having children, and leech off WIC, Medicaid, and any other public welfare program out there. I grew up with these views, and they percolated through my subconscious.
I ended up waiting 20 minutes in line for my Mountain Dew. That experience confirmed everything my dad said.
In nursing school, they teach us to try to be nonjudgmental, to establish therapeutic communications, to maintain an awareness of cultural differences and adapt our communications to them. I could write a hell of a paper about it, but I didn’t really believe in it.
Then last fall, during my family health clinical rotation, I had the pleasure of assisting in the delivery of babies. During the first days of life for these new human beings, I would also interact with their mothers as they held their treasures gently in their arms.
One of these mothers was a young Mexican woman, about 20 years old, with a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Unfortunately, the baby’s father, who was here illegally, took off back to Mexico when he heard that she was pregnant. Her family didn’t come around, and she didn’t seem to have any friends.
When her baby was about a day old, a social worker came by and talked to the mother about WIC, Medicaid, and other options. The mom—a young girl herself, really--was overwhelmed, and burst into tears.
I found myself choking up too, sitting next to her, the social worker and the baby--all of us crying. This girl has a child to care for, I thought, and no one is here for her.
I don't think I ate a thing that entire day. I suddenly realized how the values I’d been brought up with clashed with what I was being taught in school and with what I was seeing at the hospital. And with what it means to be a nurse; because to me, it’s the nurse who treats not only the symptoms but also the spirit, and that can only be done with empathy.
Now when I’m in a grocery line and someone takes out her WIC voucher, I admit my first instinct is to act in my old ways, to be impatient. But I catch myself and remember that this family is in need, and who am I to judge?